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Death of a Child: What's It Like at Ten Years?

By Richard Edler

January 11, 2002….Ten years?  Sometimes it seems like yesterday.  Sometimes it seems like it never happened.  Most of the time it is somewhere in between.

It has been ten years today since Mark died.  When I wrote Into the Valley and Out Again, I chronicled first one day, then one week, then the first month and year.  Now it is ten.  Here are my thoughts:

The hurt never goes away.  We never forget.  We never get over it.  We don’t want to.  We hurt so much because we loved so much.  But the focus on death and the event fades and the warmth of good memories replaces it.  Oh, we can still go back there in an instant.  Back to the call, the moment, the good-bye.  Back to the night that will forever separate our life between “before” and “after.”  But we now go back less and less.  Time helps a lot.

I have new and different priorities.  I move through life a little slower, a little more tuned to life around me, and to life gone too soon.  I brake for sunsets.  I hurt for the people who share this walk with me.  Since Mark died, hundreds and then thousands of children have died.  I feel for them and for their families in a way I could never have understood before.  I value people more than things, moments more than milestones, and I no longer equate what I do with who I am.

When a child dies, the reality of life we were going to have altered forever.  I am no longer going to be Mark’s dad.  I am no longer going to join him at UCLA football games.  I am no longer going to be a grandfather to the children he will never have.  If that gap between image and reality is a recipe of unhappiness, well, then the reverse is also true.  So I have had to change my image to match the new reality.

I like my new life better.  This makes me feel guilty because I would trade my life in an instant if I could have Mark back.  But I really do like the person I have become since Mark died.  I don’t even know the person from ten years ago.  Back then my life purpose was to run a large advertising agency.  Today, it is to give back in gratitude for the joy of the life I have been given.  I want to make Mark proud.  I want to be a blessing to others.  And I want to enjoy the journey, too.

I still have a grief that goes unspoken.  Who will listen at ten years?  Yes, I still miss Mark.  But I miss him quietly and silently.  I grieve for his loss; for the loss of the person he would have become (he would be 28 now, but instead is forever 18); and also for the loss of the life I would be having if he were here.

I choose joy over sadness.  If there is one overriding thought in these years, it is simply this:  Grief is inevitable; misery is optional.  It does no good to sit in a hole.  It does no good for the loss of one life to lead to the loss of two.

What does do good is doing good.  To decide to lead the second part of your life differently and better than you would have before…in your child’s name.  When we do that…when we do one small act of kindness we never would have done before…when we reach out to other bereaved parents because we can and because we have been there…then the world is changed in some small way for the better, and then the actions we take become a living tribute to our child’s life.  And then that child is never entirely gone.

And that, my fellow compassionate friends, is how it looks at ten years for me.

Rich Edler died on February 16, 2002, just over a month after completing this article for The Compassionate Friends quarterly “We Need Not Walk Alone.”  He was 58 years old. His 18 year old son, Mark, died in 1992 of an accidental fall.  Rich & his wife, Kitty, came to The Compassionate Friends a few months after their son’s death.  They became very active and founded the South Bay/LA Chapter.  He was a keynote speaker at the 1996 National TCF Conference in Long Beach, CA.  His book, “Into the Valley and Out Again” helped thousands to understand the male perspective of life after the loss of a child, as did his writings for chapter newsletters and magazines.